Let’s talk about agency. This week I read Transform Your Self, as reviewed by Kaj Sotala in How I found and fixed the root problems behind my depression and anxiety after 20 years.
Transform your self explains that we each carry identities, self beliefs in a kind of database. A self identity is a completion to the phrase, “I am-“. Separate from things that you do, “I drive a bus”, or very broad strokes, “I am a human”. Rather things that you can answer, for example, “I am kind”.
Paul Graham talks about keeping your identity small. As he said, “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.”, Identity is baggage that can burden us. But Nate Soares says, caring about something is Something To Fight For. So which is it? It’s both.
We both need less of the bad types of identity and more of the good types of identity. This is a class of problem of Joint over and under-diagnosis by Scott Alexander. Which is also that we can’t simplify this model to “identity is good” or “identity is bad”. If we do, we can no longer explain what is going on. We’ve lost information.
Jointly we need less, “I feel bad because I didn’t get the assignment in on time” and more, “I feel good because I did the tasks that I care about”. As per usual, Advice should come on a spectrum. And sometimes you have to hear the opposite advice for it to be applicable to your situation.
I’ve been working on the self concept of “agency”. Building a personal database of examples of me exercising my agency. I seem to come up with two types of agency:
Agency Over Your Own Brain
This is the agency where:
- In your head you can be anxious about making a phone call but “do it anyway”.
- You can feel grumpy but not dump that onto other people.
- You can feel angry but not punch someone in the face.
- You know you don’t like taking tablets. So you bargain with yourself and decide you are allowed chocolate with the tablets and only if you take the tablets. Not at other times.
- You don’t like exercise so you throw away your bus pass so that you have to walk to work.
- You know you will usually chicken out of social obligations, so you create a sunk cost by paying for a night course for 10 weeks up front. Then you will feel bad if you don’t attend.
- You know you hate wastage and love cooking. So you make plans to cook for other people so that you don’t have to eat the foods and ruin your diet.
For some, having agency will mean that they are able to manipulate their squishy brain. There’s a debate that could be opened here. Are “you” the Squishy one? Or are “you” the one convincing the squishy one to do things. Are you the one who wants to play video games all night? The one failing with abandon. Or are you the one who wants to get a good night’s rest? The agent who knows you don’t have to fail with abandon.
Agency is the ability to pull levers and push buttons so that your body does the diet thing even when you are hungry. So that you get to the distant goals even when you didn’t find them initially salient.
Agency over your surroundings
Also known as a Munchkin. If someone were to offer me a cheat code, but over the real world – I’d take it in a heart beat. There is no such thing as cheat codes for life. If there were, life would be a bit more like Unsong (Where the right syllables cause kabbalistic super powers). Life would be a bit less bound by physics and a lot more bound by whatever made the rules and the cheat codes for those rules.
Surrounding agency is to realise, sitting in the meeting, hot and sweaty – you can stand up and turn on the fan (and other people might thank you for it). Agency is deciding to ask, “Am I in the right cue” before waiting to get to the front of the line to find out if that is the case.
Agency is asking for a discount when one might not be publicised. Agency is calling up a store to ask if they have a product before you get there to find out they are sold out.
Agency is asking someone what they want as a gift before you buy it (debatable and complicated). Agency is taking the boring advice. Agency is setting up birthday messages on automated timers a year in advance and reaping the benefits in the future. Agency is finding very social friends and tagging along to their social life.
If you want to become more of an agent. build a database of examples in your head or written down:
- Times when you acted with agency
- Times when you saw people acting with agency that you liked
- Times when people (or you yourself) acted without agency that you didn’t like
- Times where you might want to act with agency in the future
Try to get 3-4 or more of each. The pository examples are more important than the negatory. Think about being connected to these memories as a part of your identity. Bring more agency to your life.
Meta: Short post. about an hour or two to write.
Cross posted to lesserwrong: https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/7W7nfdRWWerffLgLg/two-kinds-of-agency